In memory of Phil LaMantia, who opened Vail’s fifth business
Special to the Daily
Phil LaMantia’s death certificate will show that he died peacefully on April 8 in Illinois of complications associated with Alzheimer’s. But from his friends, we know the isolation of COVID-19 accelerated his final days. Phil LaMantia was a bit of a flirt, a hell of a best friend, and leaves behind stories that have earned a mythical glow.
Phil grew up in Beverly on the South Side of Chicago. While getting into trouble with my father, he would see his family’s delivery trucks all across the city, “LaMantia Bros Produce,” the largest produce wholesaler in Chicago. He and my father both had good life prospects because of their influential families. Phil would naturally take over the produce business and my dad would pursue a business career. Both would continue to mingle in the upper-crust of Chicago, where being a date for Mayor Daley’s daughters was not out of the question.
Phil joined the Air Force and my dad went to Notre Dame. Both returned as dutiful sons to fulfill their pre-assigned life paths, but then my dad, as part of his daily tasks at a brokerage firm, read about a new resort opening up in Colorado: Vail. So he and Phil, grade-school pals, quickly decided, as one the enabler of the other, to abandon expectations and head west in Phil’s red truck. It was December of 1962.
It is hard to talk about Phil LaMantia without John Donovan and visa versa. They stumbled into Vail after stopping for a “picnic beer” on the east side of then two-laned Vail Pass looking at the avalanche run on the 10-Mile Range and thinking they had found Vail. Remember, the only thing then labeled as “Vail” on a map was Vail Pass — who knew what side it was actually on, certainly not two boys from Chicago.
Like the rest of the handful of kids who came to Vail with nothing, they worked a couple of jobs at first and charmed the socks off every girl in town, especially Phil. His sense of style was markedly different than those around him — Italian, they would say. “South-side,” my dad would mutter. And, the way he held a glass. If you saw it once, you can picture it now. An effortless grasp of a highball — even after he stopped drinking. Never resting the glass on the table. A slight flick of the forearm out and back in, a smooth quick drink with a roll of the shoulder and then returning the highball to its mid-air hover. We still pantomime the full movement. Pinky out.
The red truck that ferreted them across the country was used as collateral to open Vail’s fifth business, The Deli. Located in a narrow space halfway up Bridge Street on the left, it brought a sense of community to a budding ski resort — a place to grab your lunch or breakfast, pick up groceries, and formulate the next adventure. The Deli is part fact and part fiction. Yes, they may have sent pizza up the gondola with unsuspecting guests to be sold without a license at an ice bar. Perhaps they used the ski patrol’s phone to put in orders. Perhaps that is just a story. Perhaps not.
The earliest days of Vail produced more stories than any one person can remember, but most of them involve “Phil LaMantia and John Donovan.” Like scolding mothers, when tales are told, people refer to them by their first and last names. They hauled a kid who had overdosed on pills over to Gilman to find the only doctor around. The kid survived. And, we all remember the misadventures with a mannequin on Bridge Street. Phil LaMantia was generous with his time, smile, and friendship.
After a couple of years, Phil and my dad decided that The Deli couldn’t support them both. A handshake later, Phil had The Deli, and my dad the truck.
In the lates ’70s, Phil left Vail and moved to be closer to family in McAllen, Texas, but he returned to Vail often and always for the Fourth of July. He was royalty to me when he returned. A rented Lincoln Towncar. White leather shoes. Linen suits in shades that men didn’t typically wear, and a perfect tan. He would take me out to lunches and early dinners, teaching me the right fork to use and how to read the French dishes on the menu at The Left Bank.
We would go to Lord Gore and he would let me order the caesar salad that was prepared tableside, and be just as delighted as I was as the lettuce flew through the air. He always let me order any dessert. In a town where everyone creates their own family, he was ours. He was our Uncle Phil. When he left after a visit there was always a $50 bill slipped into a pocket, tightly folded. “No, don’t look Kerry — not until I’m gone.”
While he spent most of his adult life in McAllen, his legacy is helping to create the early spirit of Vail that still glows today. The spirit that makes strangers into friends over a beer in the first days of a new season. The spirit that you can’t take life too seriously if Bridge Street is going to be your “city block.” A spirit of giving someone their first job or loaning them cash to pay their first rent, just on a handshake, that’s enough. A spirit of doing what’s right for the town before you do what’s right for you. These values came from people who sought out Vail, not on the promise of cheap real estate, or a guaranteed job, but who came to Vail to make a future for themselves. Phil left behind a lucrative, guaranteed and easy future in Chicago for a gamble with his best friend and a chance to make his own name instead of chasing the name on the side of a truck.
There is a narrative that it was easy to make it in early Vail — buy some land for a couple hundred dollars, sell it for a thousand just moments later. Phil would have gotten a kick out of that line. Vail wasn’t an easy place to make it, but Phil made it look like it was. His kind smile and laugh, astute sense of business, and caring soul helped create the culture of Vail we still cherish today. He left Chicago so he could be himself, and we are lucky that he decided to give himself to Vail.
Kerry Donovan represents Senate District 5, which encompasses Chaffee, Delta, Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Lake and Pitkin counties. She can reached at email@example.com
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